Swingin' at the Canteen: The Big Bands
Written by Chris Bamberger   

Part 3 in a series

Kay Kyser entertains the troops

Although the swing era had reached its height before the U.S. was drawn into World War II, our images of the home front are invariably set against a soundtrack that includes the big bands. Several swing orchestra leaders disbanded their civilian orchestras to enter the service, where they led bands that included top musicians who had themselves been drafted. There were more than 60 bandleaders who enlisted and were sent overseas—most famously Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw.

For civilian groups the war meant a change of venue and even more shows—they performed at nightclubs, at canteens, and through the USO, sometimes overseas. Many were involved in the making of the records known as V-Discs, which were distributed to the troops by the United States government. The V stood for victory, and the sides were grooved to be played over Armed Forces Radio and in service clubs as part of the troop morale program. Musicians made these records without compensation.

Guy LombardoThe war brought an improved economy as industry was stepped up and people who had struggled through the Depression were suddenly seeing a regular inflow of cash. These people needed diversion from the war, so bands that had managed to stay afloat despite the draft's demand on their personnel were getting plenty of bookings.

Hollywood could always peg a good moneymaking opportunity, so most of the big name orchestras still swinging were invited to appear in movies in the early 1940s. The bandleaders could command impressive salaries for these appearances, but those appearing in Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen were donating their time and effort.

A total of eight bands are on hand to entertain in Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen, the most famous of which were active at least in some incarnation long before the two movies were made, and for some years after. Not only do they sweep the action along on a tide of dance music, but their leaders offer comfortable, avuncular personalities that remind the troops of home and the time not so very long ago when their energies could be caught up in music and fun.

The "sweet bands" (those that were more sedately romantic than swinging), are represented by Guy Lombardo and Freddy Martin, while Xavier Cugat and Carmen Cavallaro lend the Latin touch that had been popular since the early 1930s.

Jimmy DorseyJimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra is the principal band featured in Hollywood Canteen. This movie doesn't have as much switch-off of bands as Stage Door Canteen, but makes effective use of Dorsey's orchestra (and Carmen Cavallaro's) to back features singers and dancers.

Jimmy Dorsey began leading his own band after he and his brother Tommy Dorsey split acrimoniously in 1935. Jimmy continued with the band the brothers had led together, while Tommy took over the band of another leader, Joe Haymes.

Alto saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy had reached a peak of popularity with his band in the early 1940s, accompanied by singers Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell. While not the strongest of singers, the attractive pair had a youthful zing which they brought to huge hit records such as "Yours", "Amapola", and "Green Eyes", among others. By the time Dorsey and the band filmed their parts of Hollywood Canteen in mid-1944, Helen O'Connell was married and no longer touring, while Bob Eberly had joined the army.

The band swings a hot arrangement of "King Porter Stomp" as energetic jitterbugs crowd the floor, then backs up the versatile Jack Carson and Jane Wyman on the song and soft-shoe number "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?". Jimmy even takes the spotlight for a clarinet solo during their dance. The band provides backup to several other singing specialties throughout the film, but one of the loveliest moments for the group is when Joan Leslie and a male quartet front them for "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart", the movie's abiding theme.

At one point, soldier Dane Clark dances with hostess Janis Paige to Dorsey's music. He has been trying in vain all night to prove his sophistication to women at the canteen, and he jokingly remarks, "I like these novelty bands that play music the way it was written."

Carmen Cavallaro"Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart" is also performed by Carmen Cavallaro and his Orchestra toward the end of the film, as sung by Kitty Carlisle. Cavallaro's piano style can be heard on "Night and Day" as background music, and is then spotlighted in "Voodoo Moon". The young pianist's flashy technique is viewed (sometimes in a mirrored keyboard) from several angles as a crowd of pretty girls surrounds him.

His orchestra's chief instrumentation on the number includes bongos, marachas, and two different rhythms of wood block. As the number reaches a crescendo the trumpet, sax and violin sections of the band play brief segments. His ensemble had just been formed when he headed out to Hollywood to make this movie, but they sound as if they had been working together for years.

He then announces the appearance of Rosario and Antonio (discussed earlier in our second Canteen article), whose passionate Spanish dancing is accompanied by Cavallaro's music.

Freddy Martin and his bandFreddy Martin was perhaps best known during this period for adapting classical themes into hit songs, including "Bumble Boogie" (based on Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee", "Tonight We Love", basically the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto in B Flat, and "Piano Concerto in D Flat Minor". In contrast, he also made popular many novelty tunes such as "The Hut-Sut Song", "Managua, Nicaragua", and "The Dickie Bird Song".

Martin was a tenor saxophonist who got his start when Guy Lombardo visited his home city of Cleveland and asked Martin's band to fill a date the more established band could not make.

One of Stage Door Canteen's most touching scenes takes place during Freddy Martin's segment of the film. Our three heroes, who have been attending the canteen regularly over the course of their leave, run into some Chinese airmen who are in America to earn their wings. After some banter about cultural differences (with an Asian soldier whose American English is flawless), the young Americans call for the crowd to recognize the Chinese soldiers for their bravery in preparing to fight the Japanese.

As they do so, Freddy Martin instructs his men to play the "Chinese Fighting March", and the canteen patrons cheer the Chinese flyers enthusiastically as they ride to the middle of the room on the shoulders of their new American friends. Their commanding officer asks actress Merle Oberon to thank the crowd for their warm support, and after she tells everyone that "It seems they have some work to do across the Pacific," Martin's band strikes up "Auld Lang Syne".

Despite the unlikelihood that an American dance band could have been familiar with—and effortlessly tossed off—the "Chinese Fighting March", the scene chokes me up every time. This film is full of some of the earliest stirrings of racial equality to be found in the movies, and although they may lack subtlety, I find those sequences extremely moving.

Benny GoodmanBenny Goodman, classified as unfit for military duty because of severe back problems (he underwent back surgery in 1940), had extraordinary success during the early months of America's involvement in the war. Many of his competitors were either called to action or forced to quit because they couldn't keep members.

Although 1936 to 1939 was Goodman's most successful period, and he seemed to shuffle his lineup frequently during the war years, he still had some highly acclaimed bands in the 1940s. He even managed to have hits during the recording strike by the American Federation of Musicians, as his outfit had recorded "Why Don't You Do Right?" and "Mission to Moscow" just before the August 1942 recording ban.

By the time Stage Door Canteen was filmed in late 1942, "Why Don't You Do Right?"—as rendered in the movie by Benny's vocalist, Peggy Lee—had sold nearly a million copies. Originally the song, arranged by pianist Mel Powell, was recorded in 1941 by blues singer Lil Green. Peggy had that disc, and played it so often between shows that Benny asked if she'd like to sing it with the band.

Stage Door Canteen was the fourth movie in which a band of Goodman's appears. The band members seen in the film are most likely trumpeters Conrad Gozzo, Carl Poole and Lee Castaldo (Castle); trombonists Lou McGarity and Charlie Castaldo; alto saxophonists Hymie Schertzer and Clint Neagley; tenor saxophonists Jon Walton and Al Klink; baritone saxophonist Bob Poland; pianist Jess Stacy; guitarist Dave Barbour (later married to Peggy Lee); bassist Cliff Hill; drummer Louis Bellson, and Peggy Lee. This was his group during its three-month stay at the Hotel New Yorker, and the Goodman sequence was filmed in New York. The band also performs "Bugle Call Rag" in the movie.

Goodman also recorded for the Army's V-Disc Program and performed for Armed Forces Radio.

Xavier CugatXavier Cugat's Latin sound and enthusiastic showmanship were a mainstay of the Waldorf Astoria from the present hotel's opening in 1931 all the way through the 1950s. The amiable Spanish violinist had begun his career fronting tango orchestras in 1920s New York. After a move to Los Angeles he continued to work as a violinist and tango orchestra leader while also working as a sound mixer in Hollywood and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times. (His caricatures of celebrities continued to be seen often in magazines and papers. In addition to his band's many numbers and Cugat's acting role in the 1942 musical You Were Never Lovelier, you can see him sketching a caricature of Adolph Menjou, who also appears in the film.)

It was around 1935 that Xavier Cugat's most famous band was formed and went on to appear in movies, nightclubs, recordings, and on radio, with hits such as "The Lady in Red", "Perfidia", and "Brazil".

It was quite the organization—a chorus of singers, musicians clad in brightly colored Latin American costumes, and dancers. The cheerfully exotic rhythms of the band's bongo drums, vibraphone, and marachas took dancers' and moviegoers' minds off the tensions of the times and made the group vastly popular. They, too, appeared in several films during the 1940s.

The oft-married Cugat always had glamorous women in his show, and one of them, pretty Lina Romay, sings up a storm (and even dances with Cugat) in Stage Door Canteen as the band performs the tongue-in-cheek "A Bombshell from Brooklyn".

Count BasieLike Benny Goodman, Count Basie was busy seemingly everywhere during the war years. His orchestra played numerous USO shows and held long engagements in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well as one-night stands in other locales.

Basie came to New York in 1936 with a band that had the loose-limbed sound of Kansas City and the Southwest. By the mid-1940s, the band had a tighter, more arranged appeal, and the band's theme since the mid 1930s, "One O'Clock Jump", had lost none of its popularity. Basie, steeped in the sound of early stride piano during the 1920s, had by now settled into a very spare piano style with his own band, backed by his phenomenal rhythm section.

In Stage Door Canteen, the Count is backing up Ethel Waters on her sly interpretation of "Quicksand". His style is subtle and direct, forming a perfect backdrop for a superb singer while communicating the smooth, swinging instrumentation for which his band was famous.

Stage Door Canteen was one of five films in which Basie's band appeared while on the West Coast in 1943, the others being Hit Parade of 1943, Reveille with Beverly, Top Man, and Crazy House.

Other than V-disc transcriptions, the band was unable to cut any sides during the American Federation of Musicians recording ban (a quarrel between the musicians' union and the record companies over royalties). It is frustrating to think of all the remarkable orchestras and musicians whose work during this time went unrecorded until the major labels began settling with the union in 1944. However, Count Basie was heard often on the Armed Forces Radio Network's overseas broadcasts of a jazz program called Jubilee.

Kay KyserOf all the bands and leaders who contributed to the war effort during World War II, the largest volunteer contribution was unquestionably Kay Kyser's. Kyser made unprecedented entertainment contributions to the war effort, which tend to be forgotten because of his retirement shortly thereafter.

We often associate only Bob Hope with traveling overseas to "entertain the boys," but Kyser was one of the first to do it, and was just as dedicated. Like Glenn Miller, he entertained even before Pearl Harbor was attacked, taking his radio program to military bases around the country. "The Ole Perfesser" helped found The Hollywood Canteen, and he sold 400 million dollars of war bonds during more than a thousand appearances. He helped lead another bond tour that featured several movie stars, and that "Hollywood Victory Caravan" totaled over one billion in bond sales for the war effort!

As a radio and movie comedian (he was not a musician), Kay Kyser had a friendly and giddy style that could make you laugh aloud. In part because his band recorded a number of novelty tunes, and perhaps because the North Carolina native evidenced a down-home southern, class-clown quality, many remember his outfit and use the word "corny" (or "Mickey Mouse," a term frequently used to describe bands that were more sweet than hot).

Kyser's humor had an appeal that, if not sophisticated, was whimsical. He and members of his entourage had a regular comedy quiz program on radio called That's Right, You're Wrong, and appeared in a few movies, including one by that title. As for the band, it could really swing when called upon to do so.

Merwyn Bogue, a.k.a. Ish KabibbleBecause Kay Kyser's music was heard live by more troops than critics, the band's musical talent is largely forgotten. This may also be because Kyser's was an ensemble band, with a full cast of vocalists and personalities who as much put on a show as furnished music. The supporting players included vocalists Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, and Sully Mason. Adding silliness was trumpeter Merwyn Bogue, better known as Ish Kabibble, who provided deadpan humor and doggerel.

Kyser would modestly claim that the touring would make the boys his fans forever, and that that was why he did it. But all of this was done on his pre-war earnings—he paid all the travel expenses involved with touring full-time with his orchestra and radio staff, literally until the war was over. At one point, Kyser wrote the Office of War Information to offer all his income after living expenses to war charity. Arthritis prevented him from actual soldiering, but he was the first civilian entertainer on Okinawa.

Writing in 1937, jazz critic George T. Simon claimed Kyser's band was musically "pretty synonymous" with Guy Lombardo. "If you like swing," Simon wrote, "you'll hate this band." In 1938 the song "Three Little Fitties in the Itty Bitty Poo" was a very big hit, so this attitude is perhaps understandable.

Even by the war years Kyser was presenting kooky novelties, but as you listen to "A Rookie and His Rhythm" on the Stage Door Canteen soundtrack, you hear some pumping background figures from the brass section, and the rhythm is smooth and tight. As jazz historian Rob Bamberger puts it, "I really think Kyser's reputation suffers from selective memory, or what might be called TLFS ('Three Little Fishies Syndrome')." Whatever the judgment about Kay Kyser's music, the public's opinion was clear—Kyser was the top-grossing bandleader of 1942, with 50 records on the charts and ten records in the top 10. Four of the band's records sold over a million copies.

Writing about the band decades later, George Simon noted, "Later on...the band developed into a superb musical outfit featuring...outstanding musicians...playing thoroughly musical non-Mickey Mouse arrangements and spotting really good singers."

Harry BabbittAmong the singers Kay introduces in Stage Door Canteen are Mason (also a sax player), Babbitt, Trudy Erwin, Julie Conway, Jack Martin (also soprano sax), and Max Williams (also trombone). Their wonderfully upbeat and timely number, "A Rookie and his Rhythm", is a show within a show—Kay mugs sweetly, shows bemusement at the antics of a goofy eccentric dancer, and admires a couple of talented Lindy hoppers as they show their stuff for the big finish.

By the time the war was over, the heyday of the swing orchestras was, as well. The aforementioned recording ban of 1942 had put vocalists in the forefront, as they were not affected by the musicians' union and could go on recording tracks with such accompaniments as harmonicas or choral groups. By 1947 the soloist was apt to be featured more prominently on a recording or in a concert than the band with which he or she may have performed in the past.

For returning soldiers and their families, priorities changed—most Americans resumed professions, pursued an education, or began raising children. Attendance at ballrooms dropped sharply, and new taxes on nightclubs and dance spots added to their struggle to stay afloat economically.

A vocalist with a small combo was a much less expensive attraction than a large orchestra. Add the growing medium of television to this mix and the age of the big swing orchestra in a ballroom every week had suddenly vanished.

Even if the seeds of the swing bands' demise were already sown by wartime, these bands were part of the image of home and hearth that soldiers carried with them when they embarked overseas. These were the bands, and this was the music, with which they had grown up, and of which they continued to be reminded thanks to V-Discs and Armed Forces Radio broadcasts.

That lends a poignance to the willingness of so many large groups of musicians to keep up the morale of the fighting men and women, and boost energy levels on the home front. I'm thankful that some of the great bands of those years were preserved "doing their bit" in the two Canteen films.


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